Three-Wheelers, Road Construction, and My First Pei Qian
The last time I returned to China, it took travelling to a nearby village and getting caught in an hours-long traffic jam to recall a central part of my early China experience: the infamous xiulu (road repair). My first real encounter with road repair occured during my second year in China when the main highway of the university I worked at got converted from a four lane to an eight lane highway. However, this story is not so much about the repairing of roads as it is about the repairing of the laowai invincibility status. But, to arrive at that destination, I must first explain road construction and road repair in China.
To imagine how road construction works in China, just imagine the way it works in most developed countries. After you conjure that image in your mind, quickly forget it, because everything is exactly the opposite in China. This is because the Chinese government does not give a shit about you and your convenience. When you think of road construction in China, you should think of absolute chaos. For example, instead of closing one side of the road and allowing traffic to flow in the other lane, the entire road is usually closed. In some cases, the route is still traversable via an off-road trail that is created by pissed off locals to avoid the barricades preventing traffic from entering. Even worse, if you are expecting road signs to warn of upcoming construction or road closures, forget about it. You will know about the construction once you get sandwiched between a pack of taxis, a swarm of pedestrians, and 17 dump trucks driving like bats out of hell.
In the fall of 2008, I had just returned to China from a summer in South East Asia. I had intentionally left to escape the chaos of the Olympics, but I was welcomed back with the insanity of road construction outside the main gate of my university. Living on a campus on the outskirts of town was never really convenient. But with the road construction, taxis were no longer able to enter the main gate area. Only sanlun che (three-wheeled cars) were allowed in the construction site. These road construction vultures would show up any time there was a road closure to shuttle people back and forth from point A to point B.
On that day, point B was the main gate of the neighboring university about a half mile away. Once a busy intersection, the main gate of the adjacent university had been converted into a makeshift parking lot with barricades and blue corrugated steel fences. On this particular day I was heading into the city with one of my students, Amy, to take care of some business. After I handed the driver 10 kuai, I opened the door to get out.
A lady cruising on an electric scooter nailed the side of my door. Her fall to the ground looked sort of like a drunk stuntman performing his first fall for the camera. I had already been informed about such situations in China. Feign injury. Make a scene. Get money and go.
After a few seconds of silence, the lady on the ground suddenly became animated with excitement. She wanted 6,000 kuai. More than my monthly salary at the time. I laughed.
I was confident that the lady was at fault. For one, this was a parking lot, where doors open and close. For two, she was cruising way too fast when she hit my door.
Within a few minutes, a massive crowd of onlookers had gathered. The three-wheeler driver grew increasingly alarmed. My student tried to negotiate a lower price on my behalf, but I maintained I wasn’t paying anything since it wasn’t my fault. As more people arrived and encircled us, I also grew nervous and began plotting my escape to a nearby waiting taxi. We were already in a taxi giving the driver directions when I noticed Amy was being pulled out the window by the woman, who, just moments before, was lying on the ground in pain. It was as if she had been touched by the holy spirit. I later learned that the “victim” had told Amy, “I can’t grab him, but I can grab you because you’re Chinese.”
She called the cops.
I wasn’t too worried because I was confident that they would verify that she was clearly in the wrong. But that’s not how it played out when the cop arrived. No, according to the man in blue, I was at fault, and I must pei qian. And luckily, I was in for a deal. Instead of giving her the 6,000 kuai she requested, I was only responsible for 600 kuai.
“No,” I said! He looked at me with a face that was a mixture of impatience and confusion. “Why don’t you just pay the money? Aren’t you a teacher at the local university? This is nothing,” he said. “Just pay the money. It’s a fraction of your salary. Everyone wins.”
“Aren’t you the police?,” I thought.
As a sort of middle ground, he ordered me and the three-wheeler driver to each pay her 300 kuai. I felt bad for the driver. But my sympathy wasn’t enough to pay the entire 600 kuai. I finally, and quite reluctantly, pulled 300 kuai out of my pocket and, with a look of pure disgust, shoved it in the face of the female thespian. At my pay rate, 300 kuai was just a couple hours of work. But for the three-wheeler driver, I imagined, it must have taken him a couple days to pull that kind of dough.
I get it! There are 1.4 billion people, mostly on bikes, weaving through the craziness that is Chinese traffic. Issues must be resolved quickly and “fairly” on the streets, and there’s no room for this pettiness in the courts of law. Over the years, I heard much crazier stories. With the advent of smartphones and social media, videos of individuals feigning injury to get paid and people ignoring victims of traffic accidents in dire need of help constantly surface online. I took a personal interest in such stories because I felt as though I had experienced it firsthand. But what makes this particular story so memorable is that it was the first time I felt helpless and powerless in China. It was one of the first times that my invincible laowai status was in for a rude awakening. It was the first time in which I was faced with the reality that if I didn’t play by the rules, no matter how illogical or arbitrary they may seem, I should be ready to buy a one-way ticket home.